Egyptian doctors hold first nationwide strike
Yasmine Fathi, Tuesday 10 May 2011
Egyptian doctors staged the first strike today in public hospitals across the country, demanding better pay and conditions

The strike was organized by the High Committee for the supervision of the strike, which was elected by the syndicate’s General Assembly on 1 May. The strike covered most public hospitals in Egypt and several university hospitals.

“We finally did it; we finally held the first doctor’s strike in Egypt’s history,” said Dr. Rashwan Shaaban, a member of the committee.

According to Shaaban, a cardiologist who is a member of the committee, the strike was observed by 65 per cent of hospitals in Cairo and Giza and 90 per cent of hospitals in other governorates. The strike was held between 9 am and 2 pm, the normal working hours of public clinics, and did not include intensive care units, emergency rooms, delivery rooms and emergency surgery operating rooms. The group insist that it was a “civilized strike,” that did not harm any patients, who were told to go to emergency rooms to get medical attention.

The group insisted that if their demands are not met, they will begin another open-ended strike on 17 May.

At the conference a “black list” of doctors who did not observe the strike was read out. The list included Hamdy El-Sayed, the head of the Doctor’s Syndicate, and Ashraf Hatem, the Minister of Health, who Shaaban said did everything in their power to force doctors to work today.

The duo, along with everyone on the list, will be sent to a disciplinary committee, as stipulated by Article 51 of Section 5 of the Doctor’s Syndicate law, which says that anyone who doesn’t observe decisions made by the General Assembly will be punished.

Today was a major success for many of Egypt’s doctors who have been trying to organize a strike for several years, but their plans were always aborted by the syndicate. The last strike was supposed to take place on 15 May 2008, but was halted by the syndicate which told doctors that they are in negotiations with the Ministry of Health for better working conditions for doctors. The demands, however, have not been met and this time, Egyptian doctors are insisting that they won’t back off until they see better working conditions.

Their demands include the removals of the Ashraf Hatem from his position as minister of health, described by the organizers as a member of the old regime. They also ask for an increase in their wages, the provision of security in hospitals and increasing the health budget from the current 3.5 per cent to 15 per cent.

Several doctors at the conference complained that Hatem is a member of the old regime, and a member of the former National Democratic Party’s Policies Committee. Several swapped rumours that he was heading the Kasr El-Aini Hospital during the revolution, when ambulance cars filled with thugs were sent to Tahrir Square to attack protesters, implying that Hatem may have been orchestrating the attacks and therefore does not fit in a post-revolution Egypt.

Mohamed Abdel Razek, one of the doctors at the conference, told Ahram Online that Hatem is not the only problem, but rather most of the consultants and assistants from the Mubarak era remain in the hospital.

“Obviously the revolution did not affect the health ministry,” he said voicing a sentiment that was repeated several times during the revolution.

The issue of hospital safety is also a major issue for many doctors. Most of Egypt’s hospitals lack security, which means that doctors and medical personnel are often attacked and beaten. Now they demand that police units are stationed in every hospital for protection.

“Sometimes two people fight and they get injured and then they come into the hospital and drag the fight inside and involve the doctors,” Rashwan said. “How can we work while our lives are in danger?”

Rashwan added that many hospitals lack medical equipment and medicine and insisted that the measly 3.5 per cent budget provided to Egypt’s public hospitals is often embezzled.

“The 3.5 per cent is inhumane and most respectable countries put at least 15 per cent of their budget into health,” says Rashwan. “Public hospitals serve poor Egyptians who cannot afford to go to private hospitals. So if we can’t offer them any help, where can they go?”

Samar Ahmed, an emergency medicine doctor, said that often the lack of medical supplies leaves patients angry, which leads them to attack a doctor.

“Sometimes I get a patient who is wounded and I tell him if you want me to fix that, please go buy needles, anaesthetic and bandages so I can fix it, and they get angry and attack us.”

Ahmed added that often doctor’s wages are so low they need to work in four different places to get a decent wage.

“But then we are so exhausted, we are only working with half energy and half concentration,” says Ahmed. “I mean, does it make sense that a doctor earns LE 100 and an accountant gets LE 5000?”

She added that the ministry also does not provide proper education or vocational training for doctors and then blames them if they lack expertise, or transfers them to a disciplinary committee if they make a mistake.

While the doctors at the conference today insisted that no patients were badly affected by today’s strike, it seems that not everyone is so understanding.

Naglaa El-Sayed, a doctor at a dermatology hospital in the Sayyeda Zeinab area, said that when patients were told that none of the doctors were working, they attacked the hospital building.

“They broke the door and stormed in,” says El-Sayed. “Unfortunately, some of the doctors had to break the strike and treat them to prevent any further damage to the hospital.”

Mona Mina, spokesperson of Doctors Without Rights, said that several hospital managers and ministry officials also tried to abort the strike by threatening doctors who worked there and adding patient names to the hospital registry to make it appear that the strike failed and doctors were working.

“They also tried to ruin the strike by spreading rumours that the Ministry of Health has called it off,” Mina said. “But the ministry did not organize it so how can they call it off?”

The situation got a tad sticky in the Mahalla General Hospital, when the hospital manager called the military police who then threatened to arrest the doctors if they do not resume their work immediately.

“Let them arrest us all on May 17 when we begin the second strike,” Mohamed Shafik, a doctor speaking at the event said. “Then they can treat the Egyptians themselves if they like.”

However, attempts to abort the strike did succeed in some places, such as Aswan, where most of the doctors resumed their work normally today, after managers lied to the doctors and told that the ministry has already met the demands of the doctors.

Earlier this week, El-Sayed, the syndicate head, released a statement on the syndicate’s site, insisting that he does not agree with the strike and urged doctors to “respect their duty.” But, says Ahmed, Egyptian doctors are already doing much more than they bargained for.

“At some point I used to do 72 hour shifts for very little money,” says Ahmed. “We could just go work in private hospitals or immigrate to Europe or Saudi Arabia like many Egyptian doctors did. But we love the Egyptian patients and we will continue to fight for better health services for them. If we have better conditions, we will be able to provide them with better treatment. ”